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Out of the Penal System, Back Into Life: Friends of the Island Academy Gives Support Where None Exists

FIA works across the five boroughs to transition youth out of the criminal justice system, back into their communities
"Essential Brooklyn" is an 8-part series spotlighting the people and organizations working overtime to lift up their communities through the COVID-19 pandemic. These are the ones who give the most with the least resources. They're our true essential workers, our community anchors; the ones who often go unnoticed, until you need them…. The ones who have been there for us all along. 

Early Tuesday morning, the team at Friends of the Island Academy (Friends) took to the streets to join the millions of people across the country protesting racial injustice.

Their own mission, focused and singular: Fighting discrimination within the criminal justice system by showing up for young people with support and compassion. The nonprofit organization serves youth, ages 16 - 24 years, in all five boroughs, helping them transition out of the penal system back into their neighborhoods by identifying their untapped potential.

Venus Core, the Brooklyn coordinator at Friends, took her three children to a Black Lives Matter protest near their home in East New York on Friday night. She said she teaches her kids the same thing she teaches her "work babies:" There is racism in the world, and the system is largely set up for young people of color to fail.

Friends Brooklyn coordinator Venus Core took to the streets to protest brutality with her kids. Photo: Anna Bradley-Smith for BK Reader.
Friends Brooklyn coordinator Venus Core took to the streets to protest brutality with her kids. Photo: Anna Bradley-Smith for BK Reader.

"I teach them, 'Don't be dumb, deaf and blind: It exists. But, also, there are those that are down for the cause; people that really love us, that really care,'" she said.

Core, who coordinates youth advocates in Brooklyn, has continued to show up for young people through COVID-19, knowing that a pandemic would only make life harder for teens in Rikers Island, as well as those who have recently left.

"I've gone out with a shopping cart because I don't own a vehicle, picking up clothes from Brownsville ... traveling on the train with the shopping cart to Harlem, so we can make masks," she said. "My staff, all of us, are doing things beyond our job descriptions. We're doing things that all humans should be doing. We make sure we show our young people we are out in the trenches for them, and they get it."

Broken by design

Friends, which was started in 1990 by social service staff on Rikers Island and community-based advocates, has a number of different programs serving young people aged 16-24, including mentoring, providing books and art and culture workshops in jails, and giving resources and support through the youth reentry program.

The organization looks after the kids in its program with no timeframe for cutting off connection.

Core said they were realistic about the world they lived in, where kids were frequently rearrested, whether they committed the crime or not. She said the main thing was to give those young people tools to navigate the system, as well as the skills to help them stay out of it. To teach them self-love, confidence and self-preservation.

Friend's Brooklyn coordinator Venus Core in the Brooklyn officer, where youth members are always welcome. Photo by Russell Frederick.
Friend's Brooklyn coordinator Venus Core in the Brooklyn office, where youth members are always welcome. Photo by Russell Frederick.

"I tell them, 'This system was designed for you to fail, to fail on purpose. Those feelings that you're feeling, the low self-esteem and the self-doubt, that was part of the plan," she said.

Core, who was born in East New York and now lives in Brownsville, got into social services when she was 17 years old, and said the moment she stepped foot on Rikers Island she knew that she would be in that field for the rest of her life.

"Even though these are biologically not my children, these are my kids. This is my neighborhood. This is where I come from," she said. "People don't understand the struggles [those of us] from these neighborhoods face. Because a lot of these things we deal with are not by choice, they are systemic and they are by design."

And largely, she said, money and poverty were to blame.

Working for the borough

The pride of coming from Brooklyn, for her and her work babies, was not just in the title, but the struggle, Core said. There was a time not long ago when people wouldn't come to the borough. And although all that was changing, many of those coming in didn't understand the struggle, and the culture and love that came with it, she said.

"I don't need no one to tell me what the struggles are that we're dealing with. I know what we're dealing with, and I know what we need help with too. But there's no one there to do that for us. So I have to keep doing what I'm doing."

Three years ago, Core lost her partner to gun violence days before the couple's twelfth anniversary. She said the pain she dealt with following that was something she didn't want anyone else to go through. Since then, she decided God was using her as a tool to help her people and community: "Especially our babies, because a lot of people really don't care about these adolescents."

She taught her own three children that although they don't have to follow her path, they had to remember where they were from and give back. "There has to be a contribution, you only made it that far because of the struggle you went through," she said.

Showing up through the pandemic

Youth advocate Jack Powers said Rikers is no place for a fully grown man, let alone a 16-year-old. Photo by Russell Frederick.
Youth advocate Jack Powers said Rikers was no place for a fully grown man, let alone a 16-year-old. Photo by Russell Frederick.

Jack Powers, one of the Brooklyn youth advocates, had been (virtually) at Core's side throughout the pandemic, strategizing how to best help the kids. He said although going online was crippling at first, given their work relied so much on in-person contact, both staff and the youth rolled with it and have made it work.

Powers would use Face Time for more than 30 minutes at a time to communicate with his kids, talking through anything they wanted to, spending much of the day searching for resources to upskill or earn money.

Powers had helped one family move from Staten Island to New Jersey, and was starting to meet up (at a distance) with his youth in Brooklyn. He said one of the youth on Rikers Island with whom he'd spent months cultivating a trusting relationship had just been released from jail one week before the pandemic hit. Given the danger of going home, he was living alone with few resources. So Powers was taking him food and other supplies, and the two were going for short walks.

"A lot of the kids we're working with come from extreme levels of violence and legitimate danger. They'll come back from jail, and they can't live where they were." Powers said. "They step outside and they can be a target."

He said not giving someone, let alone a kid, any support after they had been incarcerated was simply inhumane: "You can't put a young person who is still growing and developing through one of the most traumatic experiences that one could go through in this country and expect them to not get support after. It's lunacy, it makes no sense," he said.

First port of call

Jack Powers and a Friends youth member. Photo: Jack Powers.
Jack Powers and a Friends youth member. Photo: Jack Powers.

As a youth advocate, Powers is the first point of contact for the young population on Rikers. He's there to support them as they transition back into life, answering questions, providing emotional support and linking them with services including GED and employment programs.

"It's advocacy at its core. You don't have a voice, 'cause you're in here. So let me give you one out there," he said. "It's crazy [that] it's only nonprofits doing this, because a tough seasoned grown man is still not ready for Rikers, let alone a child."

Powers said when he first started at Friends, the other staff vetted him as a young, white man from outside Brooklyn coming to work at the organization, and he said it was rightfully so.

"You have to be all in. You've got to believe in it. You've got to understand the issues. You have got to respect the people who have been around a minute. And you have to respect the kids you're working with, because they don't play," he said.

Core admitted, laughing, that she was skeptical of Powers when he first started. The organization already had experienced its share of people who talked the talk but couldn't walk the walk. But Powers had proven himself through his willingness to learn the culture, engage with the kids, and really listen.

Friends for the future

Jack Powers and Venus Core in the Friends Brooklyn office. Photo by Russell Frederick.
Jack Powers and Venus Core in the Friends Brooklyn office. Photo by Russell Frederick.

Core said, although the work Friends did was viewed as post-incarceration work, there were elements that were preventative, and she was proud of that: Youth in the program shared their lessons with their siblings and other family members who experienced the same systematic issues they did.

"We say this work is not for profit, but I say it is for profit. Where we're investing in these kids is the profit! Later on, they're going to be the future politicians and lawyers. If I give up on them now, in 20 years, I'm going to be 60. And by the grace of God, I'm still going to shaking and baking and making some moves," she said.

"Those babies will be sitting at these tables like us."

*Cover photo by Russell Frederick